Sensory Overloads

Image of Criccieth Castle by B Hunt from Pixabay

It is a gift to any writer how scents can trigger memories.

One whiff of Nivea suncream takes me back to childhood holidays in North Wales. The distinctively sweet scent of a particular brand of suncream conjures up long golden days on sandy beaches and also evokes memories of warmth, comfort and family togetherness. Our family holidays were the happiest times of my childhood.

Another memory, of the burning smell of hot tar, takes me back to a quiet lane on the Llŷn Peninsula, when local workmen came to retarmac the road. It was tarmac back in those days, not asphalt, bubbly black tarmac spread over the lane like treacle. That smoky, pungent smell was to me the smell of high summer. It also makes me think of sunburnt skin, blisters from walking over the moors, a dab of TCP on insect bites and nettle stings – the sharper side of summer but also its lifeblood, because life is full of sunshine and shadows, the joy of living and the inevitable pain that comes with it.

The lane to Chwilog had hedges full of honeysuckle. On a clear day you could see Snowdon, a sharp little triangle in the distance. Sometimes you could even see the train crawling up the mountainside, like a small orange caterpillar.

My family stayed, year after year, in a working farm on that lane: we’d hear the cockerel’s crow in the morning, the lowing of the cows in the cattleshed, the clanking of milk churns as the cows followed Tom the farmer to the milking shed.

The tang of brine, salt water on rock, the sound of a stream slipping down to the beach over mossy stones, catapults me back in time to the beach at Criccieth. I’ve been back to Criccieth many times over the decades and that briny smell always seems peculiar to Criccieth itself. It conjures up the joy we felt when our car rounded the last corner of the road from Porthmadog and there would be Criccieth Castle standing guard on its perfect little green hill above the sea.

Smell also triggers the other senses: the sound of the jackdaws ‘tchacking’ on a grassy knoll above Criccieth beach, the pure vanilla taste of Cadwalader’s ice-cream, the feel of wet sand between the toes. Scent is a gateway to all the sights and sounds of summer: the symphony of blue and gold that was Abersoch beach, a wide sparkling bay filled with sails, a perfect arc of pale golden sand and the crystal-clear turquoise of the Irish Sea. I can hear the bees buzzing in the golden gorse and purple heather of Foel Gron, an ancient hillfort my family nicknamed ‘the purple-headed mountain’, which was in fact an ancient volcanic plug: the crown of this hill afforded the most glorious views over the entire Llŷn, the misty mountains of Snowdonia rising in the east in a summer haze, and further off the rolling Rhinogs.

Which of the five senses evokes the best and most significant memories for you, and how do you use them in your writing to evoke time and place and atmosphere, whatever kind of genre you specialise in?

Enjoy the glorious bounty of summer, fellow writers.

You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.

Psalm 65: 11-13 (NRSV)

I am the administrator for the education and learning department of the United Reformed Church. I am also an Anglican lay minister. I wrote a devotional for the anthology Light for the Writer’s Soul published by Media Associates International, and my short story ‘Magnificat’ appears in the ACW Christmas anthology Merry Christmas Everyone.

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